photography Thinking Images

Thinking Images v.3: Laura Pannack and Gideon Mendel

Thinking Images – an occasional series on a small selection of the week’s visuals and the thoughts they prompt…

Here in the UK, last Saturday’s Guardian Weekend magazine contained something a little bit unusual – two photo essays that many would regard as excellent examples of contemporary photojournalism and/or documentary photography (see my comments on how the practice is defined, in the fourth paragraph here, and the questions below).

The first was from Laura Pannack’s long term project on “Young British Naturists” which she introduced on her interesting blog back in January this year. Laura is an award-winning photographer and this project has received attention in the photographic press, but this weekend’s essay is a major presentation in the print media. Guardian Weekend published 23 photos in varying sizes across six pages, beginning on p. 32, with detailed captions containing quotes from the people portrayed.

The second was work by Gideon Mendel accompanying a report by Mohammed Hanif on the continuing devastation caused by the Pakistan floods. Gideon is an exceptional photographer whose long-term work on HIV-AIDS I have examined and long admired. This story contained 9 images across six pages (many of them large and hence less numerous than Laura’s story), beginning on p .46. The web version has an eight minute video as well, although sadly it has no audio from the people portrayed. One issue with the print story – something that is well beyond the control of the photographer, and an on-going problem with publication in commercial outlets – was the juxtaposition of photographs of devastation with advertisements for expensive televisions and UK city holidays, which always conveys an implicit sense of us/them and superior/inferior.

Apart from their obvious narrative value and visual craft, why did these two stories catch my eye? Well, its what they say about the publication priorities of the contemporary media, and the issue of whether they (especially Gideon Mendel’s) count as ‘photojournalism’.

One of the most oft-repeated claims is that modern magazines don’t carry difficult pictorial stories anymore, and I’ve always tended to agree. But I do wonder what a detailed content analysis of magazines and supplements from the alleged golden age of the 1960s onwards would actually demonstrate. Was the past replete with documentary images? Is the present devoid of them? A good research project awaits…

As to how the practice that creates these stories is named, the issue is whether work funded from a variety of sources over time (Pannack’s) or enabled by an NGO (Mendel’s, done in association with Action Aid) counts as ‘photojournalism’. Its not productive to have a battle of dictionary definitions, but I recalled Neil Burgess’s strong claim that this sort of work can longer be accurately described as photojournalism because it has not been commissioned and funded by the news outlet that carries it. Neil’s view is “let’s call them photographers or artists and say that they ‘do’ documentary photography.” There’s nothing at all wrong with this description, but should we limit our understanding of ‘photojournalism’ to a particular funding model, and should we dispense with ‘photojournalism’ as a descriptor simply because current ways of funding the practice do not follow that model?